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Rexroth Redux

June 30, 1991

In response to the letter of Lise King Couchot (June 2):

Were Linda Hamalian's "A Life of Kenneth Rexroth" just a book of literary criticism, I would have confined my review (May 5) solely to the subject of Kenneth Rexroth's writing. But since Hamalian herself dealt with Rexroth's personal failings, I felt it my job as a reviewer to deal with them as well.

I hardly feel, however, that I was unsympathetic. I spoke of his love affairs as stemming from the fact that he had lost his beloved mother at such an early age, and of the fact that he was "dogged by the problem" of hardly ever making a sufficient living, so that he was forced to live off his wives much of the time--not something he did by choice.

The thing that puzzles me the most is how Ms. Couchot can say that I "turned the focus of (my) article away from the work." In the very first paragraph I credited Rexroth with greatly enriching American literature. I subsequently spoke of his love poems as "among the finest in the English language," credited him with bringing a major portion of Chinese and Japanese writing into the American purview through his "celebrated translations," and cited, among other literary achievements, the fact that he had found a host of important new writers for James Laughlin's press New Directions.

As for Rexroth's "highly unfair reviews," he confessed as much to me--at least as far as his treatment of Jack Kerouac--in the interview I did with Rexroth in October, 1978, when he told me that he agreed with my assessment of Kerouac's breakthroughs, but that he had been put off by Kerouac's "constant juicing" (drinking).

As for Rexroth "doddering" in old age, I was simply taking the description from Hamalian. Couchot should also consult her Webster's to find out that doddering can mean simply "moving unsteadily"--not necessarily "senile," which was a later connotation. Having spent several hours with the man, I can confirm that he shook almost constantly . . . .

Finally, I find it preposterous that Couchot should expect me, as a reviewer, to know things that she herself admits that Hamalian left out of the biography--notably, the fact that Rexroth at the end of his life was tutoring a circle of young feminist writers. And besides, a writer who apprentices him- or herself to another writer can still be called a "student."

I respect Couchot's loyalty to her former mentor, but if she can find nothing but "gossip" and "vendetta" in my review, then I would ask her to go back and read it again with less bias of her own. I expect that she will find that I respect Kenneth Rexroth the writer every bit as much as she.



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